[Part 37] 03:41:32 // 06-JUN-2042


The rain started during the night. Lightning blazed and thunder rumbled through the warehouse in waves. Dodge lay there, unable to sleep, as watery rivulets streamed down from the skylights. He understood now why the squatters had placed the cistern where they had. The noise was shrill at first, but the peal of water on metal softened to gentle gurgling as it filled.

As tired as he was, he couldn’t sleep. It felt like his life might finally be taking a turn. He’d survived this far, and they’d be gone in the morning. He had no idea what they’d do once they were on the road, but he figured they’d improvise. It had been working so far.

One step at a time.

He rolled onto his back. Lightning flared again, kaleidoscopic blue and red light dancing across his eyelids. But the thunder never came.

Blair hissed and jerked up.

Something jabbed him in the side, tweaking his injured rib. He groaned and blinked, willing his boggy eyelids apart. It wasn’t lightning. Someone had turned the lights on.

Blair jabbed him again. “Get up.”

Dodge shielded his eyes with the back of his hand and scrunched up into a sitting position. A figure stood at the edge of the floor, barely visible behind the intense white of a flashlight.

“Where is he?” a sour voice demanded.

It was Mr. Hill. He had found them.

How? No one had seen them enter. They’d abandoned the truck miles away. How had he found them?

“Who?” Blair answered, playing dumb.

The light wavered, and a shot erupted from the darkness, spraying them with wooden fragments and dust. Mr. Hill had brought more than just a taser.

“Keep your hands away from that weapon, Ms. Blair,” Mr. Hill said, directing the light at the gun inches from Blair’s creeping fingers. “The Paradise Mind warns us against indulging in our anger, but unfortunately I have spent my allotment of patience. My emmoa is woefully dominant. Tell me where Mr. Overdrive is, or I shall kill you and locate him without you.”

“How did you find us?” Blair asked. She didn’t appear concerned about the gun.

“On this occasion? A pepperflake radio tag in your duffel. I would have thought someone as experienced as you would have considered it, Ms. Blair.”

The sound of her teeth grinding sent chills down his spine.

“We don’t know where he is,” Dodge said.

Mr. Hill waved the light over the loft, exposing the piles of refuse, but Joshua was nowhere around. Blair shifted beside him in the dark and another shot exploded, the muzzle-flash leaving a neon-pink afterimage hovering in the air. Mr. Hill swung the light back to the splintered floor between them.

“Do not test me, Ms. Blair.” Her hands were back in her lap. “If you cannot lead me to Mr. Overdrive, then you are of no further use to the ongoing efforts of the Paradise Mind.”

A few beats of rhythmic crunching sounded in the darkness, and then Joshua flew in, running flat out over a girder. Mr. Hill turned, swinging the light toward the noise, and five feet from the edge of the floor Joshua leapt, arced through the air and landed on his tucked shoulder. He rolled, knocking Mr. Hill’s legs out from under him, continued through the motion and back up onto his feet, facing the direction he had come.

Mr. Hill fell backwards, nearly toppling over the edge. Both the flashlight and gun flew free as he hit the floor.

The flashlight rolled on its cylindrical base in a lazy arc. The beam revealed Mr. Hill clambering to his feet, swung past Joshua, who hadn’t moved, to illuminate the seated Dodge and Blair. It paused, then rolled back in the other direction. Blair scrambled for Mr. Hill’s gun, and Dodge’s hand found Blair’s taser just as the light, its momentum slower, brushed over Joshua. It rested momentarily on Mr. Hill as a taser appeared in his hand. Mr. Hill and Dodge fired simultaneously, lancing the darkness with green sweeps of parallel beams.

Dodge’s struck first, and Mr. Hill dropped to the sagging boards, immobile.

The light stopped rolling, its beam shining on Blair and Dodge.

Blair’s gaze snapped to Dodge like she wanted to scold him for something, but stopped herself and shook her head. “I was sloppy.”

“You had a lot going on,” Dodge said. “But it’s over now.”

“We could have lost everything,” she said, then picked up the flashlight and used it to find Hill’s gun. “Joshua, are you okay?” 

She swept the floor with the beam, but Joshua had disappeared back out onto the girders.

With a growl, she trained the flashlight on Mr. Hill. His eyes flicked up at her and widened slightly—a display of stark terror for a man unable to move.

She walked over to him, hooked the toe of her boot under his chest, and rolled him over, toward the edge of the rotted floor. Hill’s tongue lolled from between his white lips as he flopped onto his stomach.

“Blair, don’t—” Dodge started, but she wasn’t listening. She kicked again and Mr. Hill flipped over the edge, a moment of panic on his face, then dropped into darkness. A splash rose from the water-filled cistern below, and the gentle gurgle of rain streaming through the skylights changed to the splattering of water on wet flesh.

“No,” Dodge screamed, leaping as close to the edge as he dared. “He’ll drown.”

“He intended to kill you,” Blair said. She gathered up Hill’s taser, deposited it in her bag and then lay back down as though she hadn’t just killed a man.

“That doesn’t mean you—”

A frantic burble exploded from the cistern. Hill’s last breath. Dodge shuddered. Mr. Hill had been a ruthless bastard, but no one should die like that: alone, trapped in the dark until finally forced to give in to straining lungs and suck in what you know will kill you. He almost jumped in to help.

Almost.

Instead, he sat down on the edge of a girder and let his legs dangle in the darkness. There were no further sounds from the water below.

Blair killed the light, and the darkness closed in on him.

Eventually the rain stopped, and the empty space around him echoed like the inside of a seashell. Eventually, but whether minutes or hours he wasn’t sure, the world coalesced into ghostly shapes. The floor solidified, and girders emerged as x-ray lines tracing out into the distant black. The skylights brightened, showing the first blush of a clear morning through the grime. It would probably be ten degrees cooler outside. The rain had done nothing to ease the heat trapped in the warehouse, and it clung to him, intimately, like an unwanted lover.

Once the light was strong enough to penetrate the murk down on the first floor, Dodge leaned over as far as he dared and peered down. Hill’s corpse had settled on the algae-slick bottom of the cistern, face up, eyes still open.

Then, filled with a strange combination of sorrow and satisfaction and disgust at what Blair had done, Dodge stood and carefully walked across to where she lay sleeping.

Joshua had returned during the night. Even in the dim light of dawn, his green eyes were bright. He hadn’t slept at all. Maybe he didn’t need to anymore.

A floorboard creaked under his weight. Blair stirred and sat up immediately, gun in hand, alert and ready.

“What are you doing?” she said, surveying the room once before relaxing and lowering the gun.

“Going to check on Joshua,” he said.

“He’s fine, leave him alone. You should get moving. We have to retrieve your package and get out of the city as soon as possible.”

Joshua was watching them. As horrifying as it had been, Dodge didn’t want to talk about what had happened last night. If he hadn’t been sure Blair would stop at nothing to keep Joshua free, he was now. He was just glad she was on his side.

“How about meeting at Len’s? It’s between here and where I stashed the DNA, and it’ll be deserted.”

“Your friend’s apartment is contaminated. The Burning Spear know about it and probably left a drone to keep watch.”  

Which meant his apartment was ‘contaminated’ too. He could never go back there. Homeless again. Luckily, he had Blair to help this time.

“Where then?”

Blair stood and stretched. “South, towards the waterfront. The old ferry terminal. I’ll arrange a boat for us. We can cross the lake and catch a train in Rochester.”

“That’s cutting it close to the Needle, don’t you think?”

“Exactly,” Blair said. “No one will expect it, and if it’s not expected, there is little chance of it being impeded.” She dismissed him with a wave of her hand. He could hardly argue. He had said the same thing about hiding in Studio Alley. She definitely seemed more herself this morning, back to business. Probably overcompensating for her moments of weakness last night.

“I’ll see you there,” he said, turning to leave.

Blair grabbed his arm and gently spun him back around. The sunlight reflecting through the skylights streamed through her hair, revealing hidden cinnamon tones that warmed her skin. Even battered and exhausted, she stood with astonishing poise.

“See you soon,” she said, smiled and winked.

Grabbed by an impulse he hadn’t had in years, Dodge leaned forward and kissed her. She froze, but her stiff lips parted and kissed him back. A moment later she pulled away and strode over to her bag. Time to go.

Dodge retraced his steps across the girders, grinning the whole way, his vertigo forgotten. Once outside, he cut west but after only a few steps had to duck into the shadow of a crumbling house to hide from a passing security truck. They didn’t spot him, but it wiped the grin from his face. He had forgotten, for just a moment, that he was a wanted man. Not only that, but Studio Alley wasn’t abandoned anymore, and from the sounds of things, construction had already started for the day.

He scaled the wall at the west end, found another grassy spot and dug an exit under the curtain. Outside the fabric walls, world had turned its color setting to maximum. The downpour had watered the parched grass and weeds, which now glittered like emeralds in the morning light. The air smelt fresher, and even the normally rancid smell of Studio Alley was scrubbed clean and scented spring fresh. The city’s downtown core sparkled on the horizon like something from a fairy tale.

For the first time in years, Dodge was on the verge of genuine happiness. He could feel it tingling in from his extremities, like blood returning to long-dead tissue. Nature echoed his mood, telling him it had given him a second chance, that it had washed his past away. With the Paradise Mind no longer capable of pursuing them, nothing else could go wrong. Once he retrieved the DNA, his life would begin anew.

With Blair.

Yeah, he was scared of her, but strangely, that was part of it. At least it would be something new to talk about in his online therapy sessions.

Then, what seemed like only seconds later, he was on Sherbourne and standing outside the pawnshop. The red digits of the sign in the front window showed it wouldn’t open for half an hour, so Dodge sat himself down on the damp concrete step to wait.

Wouldn’t be long now, and this would all be over.